Reflecting on Ten Years of our Philanthropic Voyage

By: John A. Lanier

A sailing parable is the perfect way to capture our foundation’s philanthropic philosophy. We’ve worked hard to put it into effect in our first ten years, and we are proud of our efforts. Still, there is much work to be done.

I have a parable for you this week. Three wealthy friends (let’s call them Alex, Billie, and Casey) were having dinner one evening. Alex asked the others, “What is one life experience that you still want to have?” Billie thought for a moment and then replied, “I would love to sail around the world.” Casey enthusiastically answered, “So would I!” Alex, the competitive one of the group, then suggested, “Why don’t we make a race of it?”

A Race on the High Seas

So they all agreed to charter sailboats and crews who could sail them around the world. After several weeks of preparations, they had each made the proper arrangements. The boats were beautiful and well outfitted, and each crew was seasoned on the seas. Alex, Billie, and Casey each climbed aboard their own sailboats, greeted their captains and crews, and bid each other good luck and safe travels. Then, with the wave of a flag, the race was on.

The first several days of sailing were uneventful, with crystal clear weather allowing the boats to make good time. On the fourth day though, a storm rolled in and the captains had a decision to make - sail through the storm to save time, or take a longer path around it. This was a race after all, so Alex, Billie, and Casey each convinced their captains to sail through. As rain began to fall and the waves grew in size, each of the friends took a different approach on their boats.

Alex stood right behind the captain at the helm, shouting suggestions and instructions as to what they should do and how they should sail. It drove the captain to frustration and exasperation, and the boat began to lag behind in pace. Meanwhile, Billie went down to the hold of the boat. Billie’s captain asked, “Where are you going?” “I’m getting out of your way, as I’m no help to you in these conditions,” Billie answered. The crew managed well through the storm, though they muttered to themselves in frustration that they didn’t have all hands on deck.

Casey approached the captain and said, “I’ve spent the last few weeks learning everything I can about sailboats. I may not have much experience, but I’m here to help in any way I can. I’ll wait for your instructions, but don’t hesitate to put me to work.” The captain nodded gratefully, and with Casey’s help, their boat was able to navigate the storm as swiftly as possible.

Ten Years of Sailing the Open Seas

As you may have seen from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation’s communications last week, Ray would have turned 88 on July 28th. That day also marked the foundation’s tenth anniversary, as we publicly launched it on Ray’s birthday, about one year after he passed away. It’s amazing to me that a full decade has passed since that day. Happy birthday to Ray, and happy birthday to us!

I wrote this parable in an attempt to explain the philosophy that has guided our philanthropy in our first ten years. When we first set out, we were primarily attuned to the idea of advancing Ray’s legacy. His name was, and still is, so synonymous with environmental sustainability, but he hadn’t left us any instructions on what to do with the foundation. Setting out on our philanthropic journey felt much like casting a boat off to sea - we could chart an infinite number of courses as we sought to build upon what Ray had left for us.

Philanthropy, however, is grounded in partnerships, so it never was about what course we would take. It was always about the partners with whom we would take it. Whose boats would we charter, and what would their crews be like? I think this is an apt analogy for the business of grantmaking, and determining which organizations to fund is the most fundamental and critical question for any philanthropic organization.

Being the Best Kind of Funder

Chartering the boat (i.e. making the grant) is just the beginning of a relationship though. When you climb aboard that sailboat, what kind of partner will you be? Well, as I’ve framed my parable, I think we can all agree that Alex is the wrong kind. Unfortunately though, the power dynamics in philanthropy can make this a real risk. Funders must have the humility to yield to the expertise of their grantees. They also must trust them to do their jobs well. If a funder is too forceful or controlling, the relationship will break down and the charitable work will suffer as a result.

A better result is when funders take the approach of Billie in my parable. Billie yields to the captain’s expertise and gets out of the way. Often, funders will do the same, writing the checks that make the work possible and then stepping out of the relationship. That at least enables the grantees to do what they do best. Billie’s approach avoids the real harms that can come from Alex’s.

I think there’s an even better approach though, and it’s the one that is characterized by Casey. It’s the approach that we have tried to pursue at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Some funders become active and effective partners with their grantees. When this works, the grantees are still the captain and crew of the ship, but the funder lends a hand when able. For this to work though, the funder must become a subject matter expert in the charitable field and also bring some sort of valuable skill to the partnership.

I’m proud that we’ve done that in our ten years. We are far from perfect funders, and we always strive to improve, but I can genuinely say that we are active partners and we know a thing or two about environmental issues. Most importantly, we’ve found some incredible grantee partners in these ten years. I suppose you’ll have to ask them, but I think we do a good job at helping them in the work without being over-involved or overbearing.

And as I sit here looking out at the next decade to come, I see open seas ahead. So much work is still yet to be done, and our race is not yet won. I hope the storms will be few and far between, and that we won’t have to tack into the wind too much. More than anything though, I’m glad this sailing expedition is a team effort, and we look forward to playing our role and sailing as far and fast as possible!